Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen
Thomas Quasthoff (bass-baritone)
Violeta Urmana (soprano)
Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo-soprano)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded June 2003 in the Musikverein, Vienna
Reviewed by: Anne Ozorio
Reviewed: March 2005
CD No: DG 477 5329
Duration: 62 minutes
This compilation is a strange hybrid indeed. Mahler wrote very little for high voice, expressing his most personal emotions in songs for low voice – ideally a baritone. Pierre Boulez’s conducting bring out a lightness of texture, which certainly illuminates Mahler’s orchestration. The voices presumably were chosen to match that heightened timbre. Usually the combination works, but here, transposition to a higher register causes problems with the singing, and this ultimately compromises the whole effort.
Boulez and Anne Sofie von Otter have often been a dream team. This partnership in their recent DG recordings of Mahler’s Third Symphony lifts the whole performance to glorious heights, and their Ravel and Debussy recordings, too, are a benchmark. Yet, here, Otter is assigned “Kindertotenlieder”, true baritone territory. The poet Friedrich Rückert was writing about his own feelings as a father losing his children: Mahler himself lost siblings and acted as a surrogate parent to those who survived.
It is not simply that the texts refer to “dein Mütterlein”: it is a masculine point of view. The finest female exponents of these songs have been deep-voiced contraltos like Brigitte Fassbaender and Janet Baker, who focus on restrained understatement. The only other mezzo versions are Rita Gorr (1959) and Vera Suopukova (1962). It’s no accident, for transposing too far upward changes the whole effect. Throughout the cycle, images of light and faith occur. “Du mußt nicht die Nacht in dir verschränken / Mußt sie ins ew’ge Licht versenken!” (You must not enfold night within you / you must let it drown in everlasting light). Boulez’s chromatic treatment intensifies the feeling of extreme light, even harsh, relentless light, and adds meaning.
To her credit, Otter eschews the prettiness of Gorr and Suopukova. Her singing is austere, yet beautifully dignified. It balances well with Boulez’s transcendental light. Only in the final, traumatic song, “In diesem Wetter, in diesem Braus”, does the transposition cause significant problems. Otter resolves the difficulties by underplaying the violence of the storm and stressing the gentle image of a mother’s house. This “Kindertotenlieder” is definitely a treasure, but it’s by no means typical or mainstream.
Violeta Urmana recorded “Das Lied von der Erde” with Boulez in 1999 when her voice was somewhat lower, and she was partnered by a fairly high-voiced tenor. That worked well, and her singing was inspired by dramatic intensity. These Rückert songs are more forgiving of a higher register. Unfortunately, she goes for surface beauty at the cost of emotional depth. Her voice and Otter’s are surprisingly close in timbre at times, but Otter’s imagination and intelligence infuse her singing with greater resonance. Otter has recorded Rückert-Lieder with Gardiner, also DG, and despite her youth at the time, it’s a more involving performance.
Thomas Quasthoff sings the “Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen”. For a change, much credit is due to the sound engineers, as his voice can seem occluded and muddy when recorded. Here he sounds as he does in reality. Yet he seems to be basking in the soundworld of the orchestration, putting relatively littlle of himself into the singing. He is well known for his forceful interpretations but here he barely flashes, even in the third song, marked “Stürmisch, wild”. He may know the moment will pass, but the protagonist shouldn’t.